The saddest woman in the world is Cissy Houston.
If you have to ask Wikipedia who Cissy is, then I forgive you. But really, that's all I really had to say to a small group of wonderful but unimportant people, whom I love dearly but hardly ever see any longer. They are my snobby black brothers and sisters who know who they are. There's an old cliche, borrowed of course but the bon mot nonetheless that you can always tell an Alpha man, but you cannot tell him much. I'm an Alpha, a member of the same fraternity as MLK, WEB and Eugene Kinckle Jones. If you have to look them up, I understand and forgive.
You see, I found something out about myself the past weekend, which was that I was expecting entirely too much of my people. And because they never satisfied my expectations, I dismissed their dreams. My people are certainly not a nation of millions, nor an ethnic minority within that nation. My people are a very certain selection of a very few who tend to know a lot about a few things and not much else. I can go to my cousin and she can tell me who Whitney used to hang out with, and we could also trade stories about Don Conrnelius as well. And although I hope he's not the third, I could tell you about some other famous black entertainer whose name is not important right now. What's important is that I'm the kind of guy who could hang out for a while with Greg Tate or with Elvis Mitchell because I have. And just last week I was hanging out with some folks who work on Wall Street but come from that same small exclusive village that I do. It was easy. I knew where to go, and I wanted to and I reconnected just like that. But most of the time I don't bother.
I'm sad that Whitney died before her time, but in the way I'm connected to my little village, I knew it was coming. We all did, I mean, common sense and TMZ could tell you that. But she was trying to be more than she could be and succeeded. That makes you paranoid, especially when you realize how close you are to your little village. Hard to explain, that. But when all the people seem like little people, especially the ones you are supposed to love and respect - the ones you are supposed to keep in mutual check, power, wealth and fame are deadly. It's hard to resist doing the unthinkable when your success is singular. When everybody buys the package, you become immune to their thinking. And that is what has happened to my people. We got away with it. From Denzel on down. Well, I don't really mean Denzel, I mean Skip Gates. I mean the caretakers of The Positive Black Image.
You see, it happened. Everybody wanted it to happen. Everybody wanted Whitney to be what she wasn't - she wasn't Dionne Warwick. Whitney wasn't a complete pig; the lipstick worked. The Positive Black Image was credible, not just for Whitney but for a generation who saw Bill Cosby as Dad. It went from Sidney Poitier to Bill Cosby with Eddie Murphy in the middle. Eddie didn't have to care, and so he didn't try so much to keep up appearances - which was why his Dr Doolittle was so brilliant and good. But maintainers of the Positive Black Image needed Whitney, in the same desparate way they now need the Obamas even more.
But there's a loose and somewhat disaffected cadre out there in fine clothing and smooth diction who slip in and out of the dialect without straining. And I hope, as long as I've ignored them, that they are robust in their ability not to take themselves too seriously, but love what they have. Whenever I post a picture of my family here or on Facebook, I'm indulging that Old School select village privilege. I used to talk of aggregation and thought as most of us did, that we would all hang out by Nisky Lake in the ATL and swap Boule stories like some blackified Bohemian Club. Yes, my brother what are we taking over this year? It's happening, and it's not.
My boy (well, he used to be my boy) was just at the White House the other day. I caught the photo on Flipbook. My other boy (well, one degree of separation) is running for DA of LA. We're not actually running things according to any plan, but we're running things. It's a fragile network. It's a good word. It can easily be broken, like speaking out of school - a school that almost exists. Yes I've always called it the Old School, and like balls, strikes, racism and gay marriage, it's all socially constructed. Real but not real. It's just a conventional understanding of things that you shouldn't really take too seriously, nor should you ignore it for too long.
They said, back in 1968, that all I have to do is be black, pay taxes and die. But it turns out that two those things can actually be ignored, and Jesus has a promise about the third. The conventions we attach to them are ephemera, but we're always curious to know how are you going to live in spite of them? What's going to be your image, and how seriously are you going to play the role? As Cobb readers know, I tend to be about *do* rather than *be*, but in this matter the Stoic takes over. After all, with those inevitables you are going to do them one way or another. So attitude matters. How do you feel about all this? Are you going to be alright?
The Old School. The maintainers of the Positive Black Image, the exclusive village of the Talented Tenth origins and keepers of all things dignified and uplifting suffered a catastrophic symbolic earthquake with the death of Whitney Houston. But we knew it was coming, and we know it will come again when the manipulations of our social capital are revealed again as they will be in the future. But it's OK, because we really never needed to change the whole world. We just aimed for it. We will be revealed to be frail, damaged and all of the glory about us that people wanted to believe beyond the limits of our gifts and ability to perform, well that glory will fade. And we'll all be a little bit more sad, and a little more real, and then we can finally be only but always what our true talents fated us to be. There will be only ordinary drama and normal tragedy, simple success and standard victories. That's what equality will feel like.
So I am recovering the ordinary dreams of ordinary successful black Americans with a cold eye but a warm heart. There's always something good to appreciate about talent, but we can all do without the symbolism. Whitney Houston is dead. Dead like Elvis. May their estates continue to sell records, but not sociology. Some people want to fill the world with silly love songs. What's wrong with that?